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Hallo again to all.

A sobering duty has fallen on us this year, that of determining the design of the gravestone for a loved one. Most of us (in the developed world, at least) are familiar with the small companies and manufactories that crank out memorial stones, with glossy catalogues featuring various styles, ornaments, and options. The letters are machine or laser cut and, to our eye, the result is rather lifeless. The 'stone cutting' may be technically perfect, but the sense of living creativity is, in some manner, lost. So we decided to explore the possibility of collaborating with a stone-carving workshop known for its superb work and its dedication to every phase of the creation of a monument in stone.

The first hurdle was plain enough: the workshop eschews email, seeing it as contradictory to the focussed and intentional process of stone cutting. Email gets in the way rather than assisting. They'd much rather meet in person to initiate a project and continue such meetings as needed. We heartily approve, but as we're thousands of miles distant from the workshop, the process seemed daunting. After a few days of brooding about this old-fashioned business of postal mail, we rummaged about for an envelope and a stamp.

Then there was the formidable business of writing a letter that conveyed something of the personality and manner of our deceased loved one, for the workshop suggested that their best work is done when they have (as much as possible) a sense of the person for whom they are carving the stone. So into the envelope went that impossibly difficult letter, along with photos, a sermon, pictures of the churchyard, and an image of the interior of the church itself. In the letter, we hesitantly suggested that perhaps all the gravestone needed was a cross, the word 'Remember', along with name, date of birth and date of death. As to what sort of stone and what shape, we trusted their guidance.

As we posted the letter, the thought occurred: 'What are we doing? In this world where there is so much illness and hunger, homelessness and poverty, isn't it terribly precious to spend so much time — and possibly money — on commissioning a gravestone? What was the matter with the corner 'monument shop'? There aren't easy, clear answers to that litany. Of all the things we can choose to spend our money on, honouring the resting place of a family member with a gravestone designed with integrity and carved with care seems to us a worthy choice. A stone is one of the most permanent things with which we can mark the earth. If our budgets allow, opting a stone carved by hand, in the old way, seems right.

Of course whether a grave is marked by simple wooden cross made of sticks, a small cairn of rocks, or the hastiest of improvised markers, sub specie æterntatis, is unimportant. The remembering — the anamnesis — is in us, not the stone. The grave is only a memento mori.

All monuments will decay (see Ozymandias, passim), no matter how adamantine. Further, as Christians, we know that the graves of our family and friends, however dear those places are, aren't more than the end of the earthly pilgrimage. Gravestones witness to the birth and the 'falling asleep', as old inscriptions have it, but they cannot speak to the life. That's the business of the hyphen* — the small horizontal scratch in the stone between the date of birth and the date of death. Call it life, the part that can't be captured in stone, no matter how gifted the stonecutter.

Still, admitting all these contradictions and complexities, we'll carry on in the correspondence with the stone-cutting workshop. Just last week — in response to our envelope filled with narrative and memorabilia, sent some weeks ago — we received in the post a handwritten card, in a striking italic hand, signed by the principal of the workshop, full of compassion, insight, ideas, along with a rough sketch. On the front of the card was a photograph of two tall carved stones, standing isolated on a rough pebbled ground, bearing the words:

And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love

Amen. Live the hyphen.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 5 October 2008

*Or more pedantically: the en-dash

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